More than a week after President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency, Maricopa County officials and others across the country still don’t have enough personal protective equipment or testing capacity to address the escalating COVID-19 outbreak.
This is the message local leaders got from Marcy Flanagan, the county’s public health director, at this morning’s meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in Phoenix.
Ms. Flanagan provided an update on the ongoing public health crisis – with two supervisors attending in-person and two telephonically at an otherwise empty auditorium, while the public attended the March 25 proceedings either online or by phone.
The director said key challenges still facing the county include a lack of much-needed protective equipment for health care providers and first responders, along with inadequate supplies to test those, who exhibit symptoms of the virus.
“Our current pain points that are kind of a challenge in response so far is the shortage of personal protective equipment. Maricopa County received on Monday our share of the strategic national stockpile and our two care hospitals were prioritized from that stockpile we received,” Ms. Flanagan said.
The bulk of the equipment received so far will go to county facilities with the remainder to be shared across the county.
“We gave them about 80% of what we received and the other 20% will be going out to first responders and long-term care facilities and our other providers in the community this week,” Ms. Flanagan said.
While providers struggle to find enough facemasks and gloves to assess and treat patients, they also don’t have enough materials to gather specimens from patients for testing at the state labs, she said.
“There’s also a testing supply shortage. The state lab will test hospitalized patients and those most at risk. But there’s not enough PPE for community providers to collect the specimens and there are not enough nasal swabs to test,” Ms. Flanagan said. “We do hear that they nationally are working on trying to get more of those nasal swabs to us, but that has really hindered the ability to perform tests.”
While local providers and labs are trying to get up to speed, agencies across the country are facing a similar challenge, prompting a call for only those with more-serious symptoms to seek the test at this time, Ms. Flanagan said.
“The labs are able to test right now. It’s just the ability to collect the specimens to send to the labs that has really slowed up the testing. And this is nationally, not just in Arizona or Maricopa County. This shortage is happening nationally,” she said. “That is why we are not advising those to be tested with mild illness, because that doesn’t change their course of treatment.
Ms. Flanagan laid out the current protocol for those facing symptoms, those who have tested positive and for others that live with them. The measures are designed to help slow and prevent further spread of the virus in the community.
“If you test positive for COVID-19, you stay home for seven days or 72 hours during which you are symptom-free, whichever is longer. And you stay away from others in your household,” she said. “If you have a fever or cold symptoms, we still say, stay at home for at least 72 hours that you’re symptom-free and stay away from others in your household.”
In homes where a patient has been confirmed to have the virus, everyone there is urged to self-quarantine for two weeks, she said.
“If someone in your household does test positive for COVID-19, we are asking your entire household to stay quarantined for 14 days,” Ms. Flanagan said. “But other close contacts can go to work, unless they start to develop symptoms, and they should follow the same protocols for having a fever, cold or testing positive for COVID-19.”
By contrast, health care workers and emergency responders are exempted from the protocol in the interest of keeping the health care system running, she said.
Those workers – even those who may be showing symptoms – are asked to continue working while monitoring symptoms and maintaining personal protective equipment guidelines to prevent spread of the virus to those they’re caring for.
“They should now have a system in place at all health care providers where they are monitoring all staff, not just the exposed staff, for fevers and symptoms so they will be wearing the appropriate PPE if they’re at work with symptoms,” Ms. Flanagan said.
Ms. Flanagan also gave a daily snapshot of COVID-19 cases across the county.
As of today, there have been 251 confirmed cases in Maricopa County – a 26% jump in cases since just yesterday when only 199 had been confirmed.
Of those cases, 45% of confirmed patients are female, while 55% are male.
Only 1% of patients are 17 and younger; those 18-39 years of age comprise 38% of cases; patients 40-59 represent 33%; and those over 60 total 20 percent of cases.
Of those confirmed to have COVID-19, 14% have been hospitalized and 5% have required care in the intensive care unit.
Three coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in the county; there have been a total of six deaths reported statewide so far.
District 3 Supervisor Bill Gates pointed out the propensity of cases among younger people, despite a common misperception the virus mainly affects older residents.
“When you look up at that slide, you can see that actually about 72% of the cases are people who are younger than 60 years old,” Mr. Gates said. “There’s a real focus in a lot of the communications on 60 and older; but, again, the great majority is under 60.”
Ms. Flanagan stressed the importance of maintaining social distancing, even among those who may show milder symptoms of the potentially deadly disease.
“I think this says a few things about our community. One: that those 60 and over have really taken this seriously and have really implemented social distancing into their daily lives, which is exactly what we want to happen,” Ms. Flanagan said. “What it does show in a younger population is that the idea or thought that if you’re under 60 you can’t get ill or won’t get ill is not true. You can still get COVID.”
Board Chairman Clint Hickman – who represents District 4, which is home to many West Valley senior citizens – urged residents to learn more and stay up to date on the situation online.
“I want to remind the general public again: If you want to the most up-to-date information, I think it’s extremely important that you use your internet and access www.maricopa.gov/coronavirus,” Mr. Hickman said. “We are trying to answer questions the best that we can, but really go out and look for that information in as easy, touchless fashion.”